Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The inaugral edition of Brain Fitness blog carnival

SharpBrains has come up with an inaugural edition of the Brain Fitness Blog Carnival.

The cover article (if I may say so), by Alan Deutschman of Fastcompay, is an engaging look at how we may solve the wrong problems, like that of overeating- and ignore the real problems- those of stress, depression, existential angst that actually lead to overeating. The article is an important reminder that in the brain fitness domain, we need to frame the right questions and solve the right problems.

Other articles range form those on the importance of sleep for brain health to those explaining how CBT affects and heals the brain. There are a lot of gems to be discovered, so head over straight to the SharpBrainsn blog and indulge in some gold-mining.

PS: To regular readers of this blog who have been missing the regular posts,I'm sort of on a hiatus. Will, hopefully, blog more in the future.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Science Blogger Reality Challenege

Watching too many Reality TV shows has been taking its toll on me, so I have come up with this absurd idea of an Internet Reality Show (aka American/ Indian Idol, Nach Baliye etc) for the Science bloggers (Psychology & Neurosciences to be precise, so that I have a fair chance of winning:-).

The Idea is like this:

1. Put up a pageflakes or some other type of page where RSS feeds (title only of 5 posts or so) of all participating bloggers are available.

2. Put another weekly challenge page that has RSS links of Full length articles by the participants on a particular weekly theme. These would be tagged with the theme keyword (say Evolution for 1st week) , so one can automatically have all the articles syndicated to that page. All authors would be expected to contribute one and only one article with that label in that week and this would be considered their weekly entry. One can even become traditional here, with time restrictions, and give a just released Seed/ NYT article as input for the theme article and just give a day (24 hrs) to blog about that. (Maybe seed or NYT can sponsor this:-)

Thus, we have a continuous RSS feed of all entries that simulates the practice or daily life behavior (blog posts) of the bloggers and we have a particular challenge entry on a given topic for a given week and this simulates their weekly 'performances'.

3. We have a polling system : Like thimble that allows all readers to vote juts once each week for the participant they think wrote the best 'performance article' . This poll page would be present on the 'performance page' only, so thta as far as possible people vote based on performances.

4. We will allow comments on the performance entries by everyone; but the we'll also have 2-3 highlighted comments by the Judges: Some judges chosen from blogosphere (Say Vaughan of Mind Hacks or P Z Myers of Pharyngula) and providing helpful comments about blogging style as well as content; while others may be practicing and famous scientists that do not find the time to blog usually but would anyway like to motivate us bloggers and would focus mostly on content; others may even be form professional journalistic field and enlighten us more about journalistic and media implications.

5. We might have eliminations at each stage (every week), so that only a few people remain in the end. (say only 2 in the final round, starting with 20 in the first round)

To ensure that people vote after reading the performance articles (and not based on the fact that they already are a reader of a particular blog) we can restrict the polling to happen only after a user (IP address) has browsed through all performance entries, but this seems unduly restrictive to me. I'll let it on the readers to vote conscientiously and read the good blog entries that would be surely be generated as performance entries.

I know that we have Carnivals that already satisfy the need to collect the best of the blogosphere; but this may add some glamour to the blogging community and get more readers involved.

I would love if someone suffering from Blogorrehea (aka Coturnix at The Clock) could come forward and take the responsibility of organizing this. I would definitely help, and if no one sponsosrs, will sponsor this----if an award would seem like a good incentive---Anyway we will have the Blogosphere Idol or some such title that should keep us bloggers motivated enough (and of course the increased readership would be the best reward).

So drop me a mail/ comment below if you are interested in elaborating on this theme/ participating etc.

Email me at sandygautam17ATgmailDOTcom

Lets get the first Internet Reality Show going!!

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Of Love, Friends and Animals

Continuing the trend set by Mixing Memory of starting the new year on a light and literary note, I would like to post a short story I had written way back in 1996, as an assignment in my creative writing class, and as a response to an assertion by my teacher that great literature usually involves good, complex and structured use of vocabulary and grammar. I was a rebel at that time and if she had made the opposing statement that simplicity is the essence of good literature would have come up with a radically different short story that would have had complex grammar and vocabulary:-)

PS: This story has relevance to the new year and is an imaginative account of trying to come up with a plausible scenario of why an unfortunate, real accident, as mentioned briefly and in passing in a newspaper report (The Times Of India dated 2/3 jan. 1996), took place.


"Coming along?"

"Not today."


"Two reasons. I can do it better ..."

They laughed and understood.

"...and I'm going to meet her."

They couldn't pity him over this.

Jealous? Of course! They were his friends. He was leaving them for her.

"She doesn't love you"

"I love her"

The three word reply settled the matter.

"We won't go to the circus. We'll follow him."

They were his friends. They were young.
They could not be avoided.


Long hours of waiting. Does time have a meaning? Hasn't this happened
before? Indeed, the 30th of Dec. comes every year. Which year are we
talking about? Does it matter? Not really!

And the place? Its familiar enough. Some inhabitants are wild. Some
docile. He soars towards the sky. She composes a symphony. He kills the
weak. She cheats and lies. Courage, Power, Deceit and Care. How are We
different from Them? They ought to call Us a Zoo. NO. We created
words. It is our right to call them Brutes. On second thoughts We are
different. We make Friends and We Love.

"Hello! Waiting for long?"
"I can wait for years."
A crane stood on one leg in the pool nearby.

She smiled. "Like all the other things?"

He could not find any hint of scorn in those words.
Love not only Blinds, It also Deafens.

She walked away. He followed.

They found themselves in front of the King.
Suddenly the world seemed to go into the reverse gear. They could feel
themselves in the cage. The tiger was moving around freely. Her eyes
rested on the beast admiringly.

She is not even looking in this direction.
How will she ever know?

But even when she was looking this way, She didn't notice
the garland.

She is clearly not in love. Then what Blinds her?
Bats are never found in zoos.

"I brought this garland for you."

"I want to marry you."
A faint trace of smile. Derision, most probably.

"At our wedding I'll give you a star-studded garland. I'll
fight the gods for it."
The smile broadens. Contempt, definitely.

"I can do great things for you."
I don't know maybe but I feel I can.
"I can even kill this tiger."

Laughter. Pure, uninhibited laughter.

Screechhhhhh.chii.chii.grrr.grrrrr. A monkey jumped. As if to
synchronize, the tiger growled. The garland fell from his hands.

Scream. An involuntary, impulsive response. A natural reaction.

He was at heart a coward.
Every Man is.
Bravery is just an euphemism for foolhardiness.

Some people are different.
Her eyes flicked only briefly.
So what? That doesn't justify this. Why should she laugh at him?

"You'll marry me! You who kills the tiger and plucks the stars! Oh
coward! I am a tigress. If you have the courage to garland a tigress
then dare propose."

The garland was crushed as she walked over it.
So was his World.
And his self confidence.

Now he knew he couldn't. He was a coward.

"Oh coward!"
The words echoed from all directions. Some creations of his mind.
Others uttered by his friends.

They were his friends. They had followed him. Now they wanted to
destroy his boastful spirit once and for all.

"Oh coward!"
Those words were magical. His friends were making full use of


The friends spent the night together. They drank. He drank. More from
necessity than for pleasure.
They were happy and made plans for the New Year's Eve.

He wanted to drink more. They didn't allow him to. The wine cost a lot
and his share had been used up.
But things like that don't count in friendship.
They didn't want him to be sick.
That was the real reason.

He couldn't sleep. But was he awake? Hard to say. Definitely not

How could the sun ever rise again? And yet, somehow, morning dawned.

He remembered some money he had borrowed from them.
Moreover he returned it.
A new day had begun. He would have digested the liquor by now. So they
allowed him to drink more.
And he did. He drank it all.
Not only the liquor, but the taunts and the humiliation.

But there exist limits. He reached a stage when he could drink no more.


Nobody, nothing obeys his commands now. Neither the tigers nor the
stars. Not even his own feet. They take him to places. Places he would
never want to go.

But wait. He is not alone .
What follows him is not his dishonor but one of his friends.

"Why am I standing here ? Is this tigress really brave? So am I."

His friend couldn't help laughing. He was also drunk. Out of pure
"Oh Coward ! If you have the courage to garland a tigress then
dare propose"
He mimicked. It was not only funny, it was also somehow

The object of his ridicule could not hear any words he said.
Yet the words were always the same.
He could hear them whether his ears were listening or not.

His eyes enjoyed greater freedom.
Tigress ... garland ... She ... friends.
Suddenly, the garland was in his hands.
Everything grew blurred except the tigress.

I am not a coward. Even if I am, I won't prove to be one.
I'll garland you honey, just like this tigress.

Security-men, wire-fence, moat, cage door. They'd lost their meaning.
Something else also lost its meaning and was turned into a ball of
torn flesh and blood.


That night, New Year celebrations rocked the city.

She went to the party, unaware.
They drank and enjoyed themselves.

Their friend would not have liked them to ruin a New Year's night of
revelry. His being dead didn't mean that his will shouldn't be obeyed.
So they laughed and enjoyed themselves. They even saved some money from
their drinks to put an obituary next day. After all, they were his friends.


Do let me know if you would like to read more of my stories. A happy new year to you all!!

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Monday, January 01, 2007

Depression and Stress: their bland tastes and their differential mediation and remeidal mechanisms vis a vis HRV and yoga

As per an interesting new research article, the Human
Taste thresholds are modulated by Serotonin and Norepinepherine
. As per the Abstract:

Circumstances in which serotonin (5-HT) and noradrenaline (NA) are altered, such as in anxiety or depression, are associated with taste disturbances, indicating the importance of these transmitters in the determination of taste thresholds in health and disease. In this study, we show for the first time that human taste thresholds are plastic and are lowered by modulation of systemic monoamines. Measurement of taste function in healthy humans before and after a 5-HT reuptake inhibitor, NA reuptake inhibitor, or placebo showed that enhancing 5-HT significantly reduced the sucrose taste threshold by 27% and the quinine taste threshold by 53%. In contrast, enhancing NA significantly reduced bitter taste threshold by 39% and sour threshold by 22%. In addition, the anxiety level was positively correlated with bitter and salt taste thresholds. We show that 5-HT and NA participate in setting taste thresholds, that human taste in normal healthy subjects is plastic, and that modulation of these neurotransmitters has distinct effects on different taste modalities. We present a model to explain these findings. In addition, we show that the general anxiety level is directly related to taste perception, suggesting that altered taste and appetite seen in affective disorders may reflect an actual change in the gustatory system.

What this means is that if you increase the amount of serotonin in the brain, then the capacity to detect sweet and bitter tastes is increased; if you increase noradrenaline levels those of detecting salty and bitter tastes is augmented; while a general increase in anxiety leads to better bitter taste detection. This also means that an anxiety state produces more bitter taste perception whereas a depressive state (characterized by low serotonin) is marked by bland sense of taste with marked inability to detect sweet and bitter tastes. A stressed state , marked by abundance of noradrenaline, would however lead to more salty and bitter taste perception.

It should be noted that different receptors and cells , in all taste regions of the tongue, for different human tastes have been found, and to me this seems evidence for five different flavors that have separate and distinct mechanisms and somehow model five different (chemical and taste) properties of the world.

Interesting to note that stress (which I loosely associate with noradrenaline) and depression which I loosely associate with serotonin) affect different taste receptors and thresholds. One can speculate that other major neurotransmitters like epinephrine (mediating stress and anxiety) may affect bitter taste; while GABA and dopamine may affect sour and ummami taste thresholds respectively.

Interesting again to note that generalized anxiety (most probably due to epinepherine levels) is tied to bitter taste and epinepherine acts on blood pressure, heart rate etc and so an epinepherine mediated response to stress could be via its effect on the Sympathetic Nervous System and affecting heart rate etc.

I would now like to rephrase the serotonin and norepinepherine distinction as that due to external lions haunting a zebra or internalized lions haunting an elephant and more generally in terms of Anxiety due to external stress and threat perception and Depression as a result of internalized stress and perceived threats. Please see discussion between me and Alvaro in comments on The Neugrogeneisis post for more perspective on this.

I'll like to move the discussion here towards an article Alvaro mentions in his commnets regarding Heart-Rate Variability (HRV) and how that measure is related to emotional regulation.

But before I do that, let me, before leaving the Taste senses, briefly highlight another Nature article in the same series, that mentions the retronasal system of olfaction and its relation to flavor perception. As per that article (you can read Mind Hacks comment on the same article here) , when we exhale, the retro nasal olfactory system kicks in, and by smelling the internal smells (of food being chewed for example), it leads us to perceive a flavor or taste that is actually based on an activation of a sense of smell and not taste proper. This is just so that the reader keeps in mind that senses of taste and smell are linked (by flavor) and it may be the case that a sense of smell may also be involved/ affected by emotional disorders like Anxiety and Depression.

What I propose is that Anxiety is a short term reaction to external stress; while depression is a long-term reaction to stress that is subsequently internalized. Thus, it is my contention that their mechanisms are different and their remedies too need to be different.

Alvaro, of Sharbrains, on the other hand contends that both are emotional dys-regulations and that HRV is a good indicator of how fit a person emotionally is and that teaching people how to regulate their emotions by providing them feedback about their HRV can be an effcetive tool against both. (Although, the sharp brains product FreezeFramre is focussed around Anxiety and external stressors and is intended for normal populations and not for depressed subjects; yet theoretically he seemed to believe that emotional regulation as indicated by a good HRV, should suffice to take care of both (Please correct me If I have interpreted wrongly, Alvaro). Also for some background on heart rate variability and its benefits go read the Sharpbrains entry in the 11th Encephalon hosted by me or more on this link.

Alvaro has pointed me to an excellent article and I agree broadly with him that emotional regulation and HRV should take care of both anxiety and depression. Yet the purpose of this post is to show that there must be (and are) subtle differences.

First for definitions (from the excellent paper Alvaro refereed to me).

The ANS, SNS and PNS:

A key system involved in the generation of this physiological arousal is the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is subdivided into an excitatory sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and an inhibitory parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that often interact antagonistically to produce varying degrees of physiological arousal. During physical or psychological stress, activity of the SNS becomes dominant, producing physiological arousal to aid in adapting to the challenge. An increased pulse, or heart rate, is characteristic of this state of arousal. During periods of relative safety and stability, the PNS is dominant and maintains a lower degree of physiological arousal and a decreased heart rate. The ease with which an individual can transition between high and low arousal states is dependent on the ability of the ANS to rapidly vary heart rate.The PNS and SNS act antagonistically to influence cardiac activity.

For Heart Rate Variability (HRV):

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of the continuous interplay between sympathetic and parasympathetic influences on heart rate that yields information about autonomic flexibility and thereby represents the capacity for regulated emotional responding. HRV reflects the degree to which cardiac activity can be modulated to meet changing situational demands.

This line caught my attention:

Although both autonomic branches exert a constant influence on heart rate, parasympathetic influence is predominant at rest and serves to maintain resting heart rate well below the intrinsic firing rate of the sinoatrial node.

I interpret this to mean that there is an intrinsic firing rate of sinoatrial node that is independent of PNS and SNS activities. This rate may be modfied by SNS to yield the resting heart rate, but there exists an independent compononent too to the heart rate.

Please note that there is a temporal difference in the action of PSN and ASN.

Sympathetic influence on heart rate is mediated by neurotransmission of norepinephrine and possesses a slow course of action on cardiac function. That is, changes in heart rate due to sympathetic activation unfold rather slowly, with peak effect observed after about 4 s and return to baseline after about 20 s. In contrast, parasympathetic regulation of the heart is mediated by acetylcholine neurotransmission and has a very short latency of response, with peak effect at about 0.5 s and return to baseline within 1 s.Owing to the difference in their latencies of action, the oscillations in heart rate produced by the two autonomic branches occur at different speeds, or frequencies.

Now the linkage with the nasal and smell systems:

Breathing air into the lungs temporarily gates off the influence of the parasympathetic influence on heart rate, producing a heart rate increase (see Berntson, Cacioppo, & Quigley, 1993). Breathing air out of the lungs reinstates parasympathetic influence on heart rate, resulting in a heart rate decrease. This rhythmic oscillation in heart rate produced by respiration is called respiratory sinus arrhythmia. As only cardiac parasympathetic activity possesses a latency of action rapid enough to covary with respiration, respiratory sinus arrhythmia is a phenomenon known to be entirely mediated by the PNS. In fact, a large majority of parasympathetically mediated variation in heart rate is produced by respiratory sinus arrhythmia.

I believe this connection between depression/ stress / taste/ retronasal olfactory systems/ smell/ nose/ yoga or paranayama/ breathing exercises to regulate HRV may be a valid linkage and the key behind breathing relaxation techniques for emotional regulation.

HRV is measured by various geometric and statistical means. We'll treat the simplest concept of HRV as implying the variance of heart beat rate (or interbeat interval) under different activities and spread over some interval to be a measure of HRV.

Statistical analyses are frequently reported and can be computed to represent overall HRV or HRV at different frequencies. For example, SDNN refers to the standard deviation of NN intervals, and SDANN refers to the standard deviation of the average NN interval computed across all 5-min recording segments.

Before discussing the hypothesized differences in HRV and emotional regulation in Depression Vs Anxiety/stress, I would like to briefly touch on one model of this HRV functionality that I find highly promising (it is a social and developmental model and takes into account evolutionary considerations).

Two major theories causally relate the autonomic flexibility represented by HRV with regulated emotional responding. Porges’s (1997, 2001) polyvagal theory is based within an evolutionary framework, which understands aspects of human functioning in terms of acquired, genetically based characteristics that are presumed to have aided in survival and/or reproduction throughout human phylogenetic history. Specifically, the polyvagal theory posits that the human ANS evolved in three stages, each characterized by the acquisition of an autonomic structure that plays a unique role in social processes. First acquired was the dorsal vagal complex, a slow-responding, unmyelinated vagus nerve that supports simple immobilization (e.g., freezing) in response to threat. This “vegetative vagus” slows heart rate through tonic inhibition of sinoatrial node activity. The capacity for active mobilization responses (e.g., fight or flight) became supported with the subsequent acquisition of the SNS. Most recently acquired was the ventral vagal complex, consisting of a fast-acting, myelinated vagus that can rapidly withdraw and reinstate its inhibitory influence on sinoatrial node activity.

The polyvagal theory states that the ability of the ventral vagal complex to rapidly withdraw its inhibitory influence allows humans to rapidly engage and disengage with their environment without the metabolic cost of activating the slower responding SNS. The dynamic nature of many social processes (e.g., nonverbal communication, romantic courtship) requires this rapid management of metabolic resources. Only when ventral vagal complex withdrawal is insufficient to meet demands are other autonomic subsystems enlisted. In this respect, the polyvagal theory emphasizes the relation of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (which purportedly indexes ventral vagal complex activity) and the regulation of the emotional processes underlying social behavior.

Finally lets look at some of the emperical research with HRV and emotional regulation disorders. There apperas to be robust data suggesting HRV is low or dysfunctional in anxiety disorders etc.

Coping refers to a set of regulatory strategies that are motivated by emotions (often negative emotions) and that frequently serve an emotion regulatory function but generally involve either nonemotional actions or nonemotional goals, or both (Gross, 1998). Higher levels of resting respiratory sinus arrhythmia have been associated with greater self-reported emotion regulation and the use of constructive coping strategies in university students (Fabes & Eisenberg,1997). This relation between resting respiratory sinus arrhythmia and constructive coping was mediated by negative emotional arousal.

Similarly, higher resting HRV was associated with reduced indices of distress in grade school children watching an upsetting film (Fabes,Eisenberg, & Eisenbud, 1993) and higher social competence in young children.

Recently bereaved individuals with higher resting respiratory sinus arrhythmia scored higher on measures of active coping and acceptance and lower on measures of passive coping. Female graduate students classified as repressive copers demonstrated lower resting LF and HF HRV near the time of a major examination than women classified as low anxious (Fuller, 1992), and women with lower parasympathetically mediated HRV (RMSSD) during experimentally induced fear states reported greater use of defensive coping (Pauls & Stemmler, 2003). Finally, those who exhibited submissive behavior during an interpersonal stressor had lower HRV (SDNN and RMSSD) at rest and during the task.

Now we come to Anxiety::

As predicted by the model, patients with generalized anxiety disorder have shown lower parasympathetically mediated HRV relative to controls during rest and during intense worry (Thayer, Friedman, & Borkovec, 1996). Lower overall and parasympathetically mediated HRV (aggregated across several tasks) have been observed in nonclinical panickers and blood phobics relative to controls (Friedman & Thayer, 1998a). Other manifestations of anxiety, such as trait anxiety (Fuller, 1992), social anxiety (Mezzacappa et al., 1997), and self-perceived stress induced anxiety (Sgoifo et al., 2003) have been associated with reduced resting parasympathetically mediated or overall HRV, suggesting the possibility that diminished autonomic flexibility may be an underlying causal factor.

It thus appears that in anxiety HRV is affected and is characterized by a simple low HRV value indicating lower emotional reactivity to external stress.

Now for depression (emphasis in article mine):

As with anxiety, it would be expected that diminished HRV would accompany depressive states given that a core feature of depression is the inability to generate appropriate positive and negative emotions . Consistent with this view, bereaved individuals and patients being treated for melancholic major depression with amitriptyline exhibited diminished resting parasympathetically mediated HRV, and patients with bibipolar depression showed reduced overall resting HRV . One study found decreased resting parasympathetically mediated HRV in depressed men, but increased HRV in depressed women . An inability to generate well-regulated autonomic responses to stress has been observed in depression, as those reporting greater depressive symptoms exhibited larger decreases from baseline in parasympathetically mediated HRV during a stressful speech task and smaller increases in parasympathetically mediated HRV during a cold pressor task , indicating a lessened capacity to regulate cardiac activity to meet the task demands. Resting overall and parasympathetically mediated HRV have interestingly been shown to increase with successful treatment of depression , suggesting that resting HRV is related to within-person variation in regulated emotional responding over time.

What I would like to emphasize is that depression is a second type of dis-regulation of Heart rate. While HRV captures the first rate variance that is ANS mediated, the baseline (or average) of heart rate variance may differ between people and within-a-person over time. In Manic episodes (when all the world is friendly and everyone an angel), the HRV may be very great; while in depressive episodes HRV may revert to a very low baseline level. It is my contention that this baseline Heart rate variability and the ability of heart to keep the HRV suited to task demands may be disrupted in depressive people as the baseline HRV has shifted. That is the depressive person will have a lower resting HRV than controls and given a control task would be unable to modify its HRV appropriately to meet task demand. To put matters simply while HRV measures the variance and flexibility in Heart rate and emotional regulation in response to an external event and low levels means inability to deal with external stress; The depression is characterized by low mean or baseline heart rate variability per se. This I suspect may be due to the lowered baseline firing rate of sinoarterial node an may have nothing to do with CNS, but might be directly influenced by CNS.

Hence my contention that we may need other tricks like CBT, RET for suitably modifying HRV and letting the HRV have a stable value over a long time period. Biofeedback, which would just indicate the variability with respect to current baseline , and would not reflect the cumulative history of the baseline Heart rates may not be helpful in treating depression thus.

Would love to hear other comments/ opinions.

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